On July 16, 1945, not long after the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in the desert near Alamogordo in southern New Mexico, Winston Churchill is said to have exclaimed: “What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the Second Coming in wrath!”
At that time, debate was under way in the United States over whether to unleash the destructive power of nuclear weapons upon the Japanese, and Churchill was directing his cautionary remarks to then-US Secretary of War Henry Stimson. But the decision to use the bomb came quickly in Washington; the country had just suffered a devasting attack on Pearl Harbor. As Stimson later put it, “I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisers they must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the Empire.”
More than half a century later, it is difficult to imagine using nuclear arms in the heat of battle, for any reason. Throughout much of the cold war, they were largely justified as instruments of strategic deterrence rather than as weapons usable in combat. Since the end of the cold war new nuclear powers like India and Pakistan have emerged onto the world stage, but the older ones have significantly scaled back their arsenals. Moreover, as the US-led wars in Serbia and Afghanistan have shown, conventional US military force has become so overwhelmingly powerful that Pentagon planners no longer “need” atomic explosives to create the “tremendous shock” required to obliterate hostile regimes.
Yet within the US military establishment, nuclear weapons do not appear to be irrevocably sliding down the path to extinction. Quite the contrary–over the past several years there has been a growing push both within and outside government to make nuclear weapons more “usable,” or pertinent, in a world troubled by terrorism, rogue dictators, crumbling Russian might and ascending Chinese power. Not surprisingly, this push has brought with it a shift in the way some members of the defense community are thinking about nuclear arms and military strategy. The ideas defining atomic weapons–when to use them, how and why–are in flux.
In many ways, the Pentagon’s top-secret nuclear policy review–released to Congress in January but leaked to major media in March–is the culmination of this movement. The review states that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya should be added to nuclear targeting plans. It also advocates new, smaller nuclear weapons that would be incorporated into conventional war-making tactics. However, these ideas have long been in the making.
If current policy does not change course, twenty years from now we could experience the following: Rather than pursue the path to total nuclear disarmament, Washington will command a new class of small-scale atomic weapons intended for use on the battlefield. The cold war arsenal will have been substantially reduced, but in case unforeseen threats arise, the deactivated warheads will have gone into storage, rather than been destroyed. Meanwhile, America’s remaining cold war atomic weapons will be targeted not just at Russia but also at an array of developing countries. The conceptual firewall currently separating nuclear weapons from conventional ones will have largely crumbled, and the United States will have openly abandoned its unwillingness to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear threats.